Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic congratulate each other at the end of Game 4

Pelicans have spent 2017-18 defying dire predictions about their season

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

New Orleans Pelicans players have heard this before, at every stage of the 2017-18 season: They’re not going to make the playoffs, a prediction by many NBA analysts in September. They have no chance to survive the Western Conference postseason race without four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, sidelined by a season-ending injury in January. OK, so they claimed a coveted postseason berth, but they’re a lock to lose an April first-round series to Portland, right?

Right?

Wrong again.

All 22 ESPN.com analysts predicted that the Trail Blazers would eliminate the Pelicans in Round 1; New Orleans instead dominated, sweeping the series 4-0. Those same 22 analysts will undoubtedly again pick New Orleans to lose when the Pelicans likely meet Golden State in the West semifinals, but you can forgive Pelicans players if they couldn’t care less. Punctuated by a 131-123 victory Saturday to end third-seeded Portland’s season surprisingly early, sixth-seeded New Orleans has spent the past seven months defying expectations.

“With everything we went through this season – from big injuries to trades and all that – I think Anthony (Davis) said it best when he said they were sleeping on us,” guard Jrue Holiday noted after tallying a career-best 41 points vs. Portland. “I think everybody counted us out. To be here at this point right now, it feels pretty good.”

Whether it was before the regular season or in the days prior to the playoffs, modest outside expectations for New Orleans came partly from reviewing the team’s recent track record, which included two consecutive trips to the NBA draft lottery. However, as Davis and Holiday demonstrated emphatically in Game 4 vs. Portland, they’re both playing at a level they’ve never previously reached during six- and five-year tenures in the Crescent City, respectively. Davis established the New Orleans single-game postseason franchise record by piling up 47 points, finishing Round 1 with averages of 33.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. Holiday’s 41-point eruption netted him an average of 27.8 points, to go with 6.5 assists, and meant that both Pelicans stars had surpassed David West’s 10-year-old team mark of 38 points in a playoff game.

While Davis’ decorated NBA career had been without even a playoff-game victory prior to the Portland series – and Holiday’s rich ’17 free-agent contract with New Orleans was widely second-guessed – point guard Rajon Rondo believed the duo was capable of big things. He felt the same way about the Pelicans as a team.

“When I watch film, it’s amazing what they do,” Rondo said of Davis and Holiday. “I’m a big believer in the entire team watching film, because you’re able to appreciate what your teammates do and what they do best, so you’re able to play to their strengths. Before each game, I always go to these two and tell them to be great. It’s what they are, and the game spoke for itself (Saturday). “

The presence of Davis and Holiday, along with that of Cousins, was a primary reason Rondo signed with the Pelicans last July. He repeatedly said throughout the winter that New Orleans should not be content with simply reaching the playoffs, even if the team badly wanted to at least get in the postseason, after two very disappointing campaigns.

As Rondo correctly envisioned way back in the fall, the ceiling for New Orleans is higher than that of a team that should just be happy to be here in the playoffs, content to go on vacation after putting up a mild fight against a superior opponent. After rapidly vanquishing more highly-touted Portland, the Pelicans will enter Round 2 as one of the NBA’s hottest teams, riding a nine-game winning streak that dates back to the end of the regular season. Barring a comeback of epic and unprecedented proportions by San Antonio, their next-round matchup will be vs. Golden State, which holds a 3-0 edge on the Spurs.

“Like I said (in September), I came here to win a championship,” Rondo recalled at Saturday’s postgame press conference. “I didn’t come here to beat a team in the first round or the second round. My expectations were high coming in, knowing the talent I was playing with.

“It kind of all meshed. It took a while, but at the end of the day, nothing comes together quickly. We were able to come together, play for each other and believe in one another. (Winning a first-round series) is one checkmark of the big goal we have in mind. We’re going to continue to try to stay even-keeled throughout the playoffs, get a couple days of rest, come back locked in and ready to go, against probably the defending champs.”

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